WASHINGTON, June 6, 2016 – For many black youth in the ’60s and ’70s, boxing was part of the life blood of growing up. For those who lived in the urban or rural areas of America, listening to the radio or viewing the masterful boxing prowess of a Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson or even Joe Louis in his prime was more than watching a match, it was watching black history in the making as well.
Think about it for a moment and consider how it felt to be looking at a young brash boxer, then named Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., who had won an Olympic gold medal in the 1960 games. Clay was beloved by millions, not only for his athletic prowess but also for his relentless braggadocio.
Clay then stepped into boxing history when he captured the World Heavyweight Championship from Sonny Liston in 1964.
Clay’s verbal pounding of Liston was epic. He was letting the boxing world and millions of young black youth know that you needed skills and verbal confidence. Ali was not just a braggart; he said once, “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”
The feeling of being able to harness your skills and abilities to overpower how many in America’s society of the late 1950s and 1960s viewed you was important to young men, particularly young black men. For a moment imagine how you would feel if you had to endure devastating verbal intimidation and attacks on your selfhood by teachers. Add to that how you listened as your dad spoke about his white supervisors, who were often less educated, punctuated nearly each directive with causative sneers that began with the word “ni—er” or worse.
Your dad knew he could not fight back against an unjust system or a white supervisor who would fire a father who had to feed and house his kids and family the moment he felt the black father was being uppity for standing up to him.
Yet here was a young boxer who not only had courage but also possessed the confidence of mythic proportions to win and keep winning, while telling America how great he was as a boxer and as a human being.
Boxing was in the lifeblood of my family as well.
My father was a boxer, as was his brother, my Uncle Paul. My older brother Sgt. First Class John T. Fobbs, followed in my dad’s footsteps and used boxing as a way to harness his skills as a soldier in Vietnam and as an American who felt strongly about what service and freedom meant.
John took a different route than Cassius Clay, who converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali after refusing to fight in Vietnam. John joined the army and captured the Army boxing championship several times.
He also was a frequent sparring partner for Floyd Patterson, who became the youngest heavyweight champion in history and the first heavyweight to regain his title following a loss.
But my brother, like Ali, possessed an inner strength and confidence that I admired and that impacted my own youth. Embracing one’s inner strength was a core value I felt necessary to use when standing up against an unjust first grade white teacher’s unjust treatment of black students.
The Ali affect made young black kids feel more confident to say something that alerted these seemingly equality deniers to take notice.
Like Ali or for my boxing brother Sgt. Fobbs, standing up and staying up and speaking with authority in your voice was to be expected and eventually respected. John said that he learned from his boxing dad that nothing in the boxing ring or in life was impossible, so speaking truth to power should never be difficult.
This was also part of the creed of the legendary boxer. Ali stressed,
“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
Yet at times, as I read frequent newspaper accounts of young black marchers who joined their parents and fellow churchgoers being beaten and battered weekly as they demonstrated peacefully, the boxing lesson of using inner strength seemed hard to embrace.
But my dad reminded my other brothers that he was not only teaching us how to box but also how to learn how to use confidence necessary to build inner patience.
He mentioned how his inspiration to become a boxer came from the confidence shown by the turn of the 20th century black boxing legend Jack Johnson. While many historic fights against George Frazier and George Foreman were perhaps pale compared to the first “Fight of the Century” Johnson fought against white boxer Jim Jeffries, a former heavyweight champion. Johnson, like Ali, had a skill for verbal intimidation and certainly unmatched bravado, which young black boxers like my father admired.
Jeffries refused to box Johnson, and he had most of White America on his side. The majority of white boxing fans considered black boxers like Johnson inferior to white boxers. But on July 4, 1910, Jeffries decided to confront Johnson in Reno, Nevada, with the help of $30,000. After 15 rounds of pummeling by Johnson, Jeffries lost the boxing battle, and scores of young black boxers all over the south and the north felt a little freer and certainly more affirmed in their own skills and abilities.
The final blow that strengthened the grip of boxing freedom for backs in the ring and built pride in the heart of my father and his young son John, who would follow him into the ring was Joe Louis from Detroit. Louis, like Johnson, had to confront the racism of his time. But when the world heavyweight boxing champion from June 22, 1937, until March 1, 1949, stepped into the ring against Max Schmeling, the match would become legendary.
Louis had lost to Schmeling, German chancellor Adolph Hitler’s example of the racial superiority of Aryans in a June 19, 1936, match in the 12th round. Therefore, the June 22, 1938, rematch was billed as the greatest match of all time. Even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt felt the surge of pride and patriotism millions of Americans were feeling. According to the New York Times, he stressed to Louis, “Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany.”
Over 70,043 boxing fans crammed into Yankee Stadium, and millions around the world listened as the Detroit “Brown Bomber” demolished Schmeling, the symbol of the Nazi war machine. Louis’ defeat of the German boxer had shown my father, America and the world, that the false notion of racial superiority was left on the boxing canvas floor.
With each example of boxing prowess shown by first Johnson, Louis and finally Ali, black youth and their parents knew that the strength and endurance exhibited in the boxing ring could be transferable to achievement outside of the ring.
Muhammad Ali’s boxing accomplishments were in many ways a culmination and affirmation of the legends of the ring who came and fought before him. My dad and Sgt. John Fobbs learned that you needed both personal and mental strength to persevere. Training for a boxing match is done not because you love it, but because it is necessary to win in the ring and in life.
Learning to apply that philosophy for developing mental toughness was what I learned from my dad. Ali captured that winning approach by saying, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’”
Ali, my dad and my brother helped me to learn to live life as a champion in the boxing arena of life. It has been well worth it.